The Mill Valley Film Festival – now getting ready to serve up year No. 42 in Mill Valley, San Rafael and Larkspur – is more than just a ten-day buffet of internationally curated cinematic gems. Since the acclaimed festival just happens to take place in early October, at the start of Academy Award season, the programming generally features a lot of movies that are just beginning to build momentum as potential Oscar attention-grabbers. It’s true. Few festivals of its size have a better record of screening content in October that will go on to be nominated for and often win the Best Film Oscar February of the following year. Of the last ten Best film winners, only one (“Birdman”) did not have screen time at the Mill Valley Film Festival.
Of course, there are plenty of MVFF fans that could care less about the Oscar-bait undercurrent of the yearly cinematic extravaganza. There arethose who attend primarily to see weird little movies they will never have another opportunity to see in a theater, and this year there will be plenty of those. Others – let’s just say it – are there for the parties, and the Mill Valley Film Festival is famous for the extravagance of its opening night and closing night galas, along with the many and various receptions, parties and post-show celebrations.
Sneak-peeks of all of that stuff, with full descriptions and elaborations, will be offered in addendums to this report. But in this one, let’s focus on some of that aforementioned Oscar Bait, beginning with the opening night (Thursday, Oct.3) Bay Area debut of director Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Just Mercy,” an adaptation of the searing memoir by civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson. Taking place in Monroeville, Alabama in the late 1980s, the film follows a young, idealistic Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), fresh out of Harvard Law School, as he attempts to prove the innocence of a death row convict (Jamie Foxx) sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman. Based on trailers, the film looks powerful, perhaps a bit preachy, but with performances that are clear high-water marks for the remarkable cast.
Kristen Stewart, who will be the subject of a spotlight interview on Monday, Oct. 7, is the star of director Benedict Andrews’ much-discussed film “Seberg,” in which Stewart plays the tragic screen legend Jean Seberg (“Saint Joan,” “Breathless,” “Paint Your Wagon”), whose support of progressive causes in the ‘60s and ‘70s made her the target of a notoriously hostile and destructive FBI investigation and smear campaign. Though the film itself has failed to garner much adulation, critics have nevertheless praised Stewart’s fearless and raw performance, placing her on many prognosticators’ lists of actors deserving of Academy Award consideration.
The last time Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones made a film together, it was “A Theory of Everything,” the film and both actors were nominated for Oscars, and Redmayne went on to win the statue for Best Leading Actor for playing Stephen Hawking. In “The Aeronauts” (Thursday, Oct. 10, Sunday Oct. 13), Redmayne plays another kind of scientist, a Victorian meteorologist attempting to prove the predicting the weather is possible. He team up with a daredevil balloonist (Jones) for a scientific expedition to the heights, where spectacular-looking balloon-themed adventures takes place. Though “Based on actual events,” it will appeal to those with a taste for steam-punkish action, and given the chemistry that its two stars have proven to have on screen, there’s certainly a chance that lightning could strike twice. Not to mention that they do give Oscars for special effects, and this one looks to be jam-packed with spectacular visuals.
The acclaimed director Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”) brings the story of the Underground Railroad to lyrical life in the drama “Harriet” (Saturday, Oct. 5, 7 p.m., Wednesday Oct. 9, 2:30 p.m.), tracing the life of Harriet Tubman from enslavement in the South, her escape to the North, and her return to become “conductor” in the famous network of hiding places and helpers that became the path to freedom for thousands of escaped slaves. Playing Tubman is Cynthia Erivo, winner of the Tony Award for playing Celie in the Broadway musical production of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.”
Terrence Malik’s films are often filled with Oscar-worthy performances, but it’s been a while since one of this films sparked talk of possible awards for Malik himself. “A Hidden Life” (Saturday, Oct. 12, 7:30 p.m.) and Sunday, Oct. 13, 5 p.m.) is based on the true story of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to fight for the Nazi army and went to prison rather than sign a loyalty oath to Hitler. The film has been praised for its quiet beauty and powerful themes of standing up to fascism, as Jägerstätter firmly stands up for what he believed, despite the unspeakable evil that had claimed his country.
Anything directed by Martin Scorcese is instantly assumed to be potentially Oscar-worthy, and that’s doubly so when the film features a performance by Robert DeNiro. “The Irishman” (Tuesday, Oct. 8, 6:30 p.m.) gives us DeNiro as infamous mob hit-man Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who claimed to have been the one who took down labor organizer Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The film also stars Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Ray Romano. The script was penned by frequent Oscar-nominee Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”).
“Waves” (Wednesday, Oct. 9, 7 p.m., Friday, Oct. 11, 11:30 a.m.), which came out of nowhere to blow away audiences at the Telluride Film Festival a few weeks ago, is one of those “Film Festival Films” that used to be great for the resumes and career expansions of their actors and directors, but had virtually no chance of winning an Oscar. The tide has changed, however, and “Waves,” by writer-director Trey Edward Shults (“They Come At Night”), now looks like the perfect film to sneak to the front of the pack at the next Academy Awards. A quiet but emotionally explosive family drama, the film explores the pressures experienced by a brother and sister in Florida, when their confortable middle class life begins to be hit by a series of mounting challenges. In the cast are Kelvin Harrison Jr. (“It Comes At Night”), Taylor Russell (“Lost in Space”), Sterling K. Brown (“This is Us”), Renee Elise Goldsberry (Broadway’s “Hamilton”) and Lucas Hedges (“Boy Erased”).
“The Report” (Friday, Oct. 11, 6 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 12, 5:15 p.m.), is one of two MVFF films featuring powerful performances by Adam Driver (Kylo Ren in the “Star Wars” films), who was nominated for an Oscar last year for “Blackkklansman”). The other is Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” (Saturday, Oct. 12, 6:30 p.m., Sunday, October 13, 11 a.m.), also starring Scarlett Johansen, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Julie Hagerty. Described as an “All the President’s Men” for the modern age, “The Report” is about Daniel Jones, the real-life national security expert whose investigations into waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques but him at the center of government attempts to discredit Jones and bury the report. Annette Bening also stars as Diane Feinstein.
What originally looked like just a good old-fashioned whodunit with an all-star cast) a throw-back to the great Agatha Christie spectacles of the 70s, recently resurrected by Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express”), the upcoming “Knives Out” has surprised culture-watchers by garnering its own Oscar predictions. The story of a dead mystery-writer and the many relatives who might have done the old man in, ‘Knives Out” (great title!) features a stellar cast that includes Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Toni Collette and Christopher Plummer (as the dead guy). It plays at the festival on Friday, Oct. 4 at 8 p.m. and Wednesday, Oct. 9 at 11:30 a.m.
The festival’s closing night offers film-fans two different flavors of Oscar bait, with “Ford vs. Ferrari” and “Motherless Brooklyn” playing at basically the same time, after which one last, big party happens to close out another year. Starring Oscar-favorites Matt Damon, Christian Bale and several other notable actors, “Ford Vs. Ferrari” is director James Mangold’s retelling of the battle Ford waged to have one of its cars beat Ferrari at Le Mans, and the designers, engineers and racecar drivers who set out to make that historic win happen. “Motherless Brooklyn,” based on the bestselling novel by Jonathan Lethem, and directed by Edward Norton (who also stars), the film follows a 1940s-era detective with Tourette’s Syndrome, attempting to solve the murder of his mentor (Bruce Willis). Norton is being called a shoo-in for an acting nomination, and could also pull in a nom for best director.
There. That’s just a dozen of them. But you have to start somewhere. For the full list of movies, Oscar-bait and otherwise, visit the website at MVFF.org.